After career of international humanitarian work, new United Way CEO is excited to apply what he’s learned
photo by: Mike Yoder
A globe would come in handy when talking with Jeffrey Cornish, the new president and CEO of the United Way of Douglas County, about the timeline of his career.
Cornish’s resume includes nonprofit work in central Eurasian countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as in Africa and Polynesia. Most recently, he worked for six months in 2018 in Durango, Colo., as the executive director of the Shanta Foundation, which works to develop healthy communities in Myanmar.
Now Cornish and his wife, Nino, whom he met while working in Georgia, have moved to Lawrence with their 5-year-old twins, Tsotne and Anastasia.
“I have lived quite the mobile life,” Cornish said as he spoke with the Journal-World on Tuesday morning.
It’s a life he believes has prepared him for his position, which he started late last week.
After years of international humanitarian work, Cornish said he wanted to focus on serving people in the United States. He applied for the position in Lawrence, which opened up in November 2018 when Jannette Taylor, who was the CEO of the United Way of Douglas County for a little more than a year, stepped down.
“I wanted to bring that jewel of experience home and apply everything I learned in the world to a local community,” Cornish said.
Peggy Johnson, chairwoman of the United Way board, is excited with the nonprofit expertise Cornish is bringing to the organization.
“Sometimes it’s nice to have new viewpoints,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we can get in a rut. He has such a passion wanting to help people.”
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Cornish, a native of Massachusetts, said he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in international relations from the University of London. After graduate school, he worked briefly as an English teacher in Japan before he was accepted into the Peace Corps, where he served as a volunteer in Russia. From the Peace Corps, he moved on to international development and relief efforts in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
His resume includes several international humanitarian organizations, including the French-based Action Against Hunger, where he helped set up a hospital for famine relief for a large refugee population in northern Uganda, and the Irish-based Concern Worldwide, where he helped with humanitarian efforts in West Darfur. At one point, he came back to the Peace Corps and served as country director in the west African country of Gambia and the Polynesian nation of Tonga.
He admits he never stayed in one place for very long.
“A lot of it has to do with contracts,” Cornish said. “Often 12-month contracts are renewable, but a lot of times (it) depends on the agency and situation. A lot of times you feel you have done as much as you can and move to a different operation.”
Cornish’s most recent jobs have been in the U.S., however. Prior to working at the Shanta Foundation in Durango, he worked as executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s U.S. programs based in Tucson, Ariz. That organization provides services to people who have had their lives disrupted by war, conflict and natural disasters.
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Right off the bat, Cornish said, he’ll be facing a challenge at the United Way — the organization hasn’t met the $1.5 million goal for its 2018-2019 campaign. He said the exact figure of how much the campaign had raised wasn’t available, but that it would be announced at the United Way’s annual meeting and campaign celebration at 5 p.m. March 19 at Maceli’s, 1031 New Hampshire St.
“I am calling on donors to fulfill pledges so we can fulfill our pledge to all our partners who are counting on our money to offer their services to the public,” Cornish said.
Cornish said he’s been spending his first days on the job getting to know the United Way’s staff and donors and the leaders of the agencies the United Way supports.
At Just Food, the Douglas County food bank, which receives 5 percent of its annual operating budget from the United Way, director Elizabeth Keever said Cornish brings a lot of unique experiences to Douglas County, and she’s looking forward to working with him.
“He can bring a perspective to the issues and challenges facing Douglas County, including food insecurities,” Keever said.
Cornish looks forward, too, to working alongside community partners and resources like Just Food. He said that all over the world, he’s learned that communities need to come together to get things done.
“The biggest lesson I learned, I had to travel the world to understand,” Cornish said. “That the only way communities change is when communities are themselves the agents of change. No matter how much aid or support you dump into a village or a community, nothing will change unless the community wills it.”